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Food safety crackdown underway in the EU

By Ahmed ElAmin , 07-Nov-2005

In the run up to the introduction of new EU regulations, the death of a boy from E. coli and the subsequent closure of a UK processor highlights the increasing regulatory crackdown on hygiene at food plants

The UK's Food Standards Authority (FSA) today issued guidelines for food safety inspectors to follow when the EU's new hygiene regulations come into force and says they also serve as information for foodmanufacturers and consumers.

Coincidently, the BBC published a report finding there were about 700 unfilled food safety inspector posts in the UK and claiming that the shortage could lead to furtherdangerous outbreaks of food-borne disease.

European consumers have become increasing concerned about food safety, mainly due to the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) scare in cattle beginning in the late 1980s, a foot and mouth diseaseoutbreak in 2001 and of avian flu in 2003 and this year. As a result the EU and regulatory authorities in member states have been increasing their regulation of the industry, resulting in more costsand greater public scrutiny of manufacturers' operations.

The hygiene package of five laws adopted by the EU last year aim to merge, harmonise and simplify complex hygiene requirements currently scattered over seventeen EU directives. The single hygienepolicy, due to come into force on 1 January 2006, will apply to all food and all food operators.

While the package would lead to higher costs for food processors, it would also make cross-border trading in the bloc simpler for them by establishing a common set of rules.

With the establishment of a common health certificate for food and feed products entering the EU, imports would also face less red tape under the new rules. This is a mixed blessing for foodprocessors. Those bringing supplies into the bloc would find it easier to do so. However it could also result in increasing competition within the bloc from non-EU companies.

The Food Standards Agency notes on the new regulations sets out general requirements for enforcement authorities that are responsible for checking that businesses comply with the feed and foodlegislation. The notes are designed to explain the provisions of the regulation and to provide informal and non-statutory advice.

In the UK responsibility for official feed and food controls is held centrally. In practice, the execution of the responsibility is divided between central and local authorities.

The central authorities are the Food Standards Agency, Defra and the devolved agriculture departments and their agencies. The agencies include the Meat Hygiene Service, the Veterinary MedicinesDirectorate, the Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Dairy Hygiene Inspectorate.

At the local level much of the enforcement is carried out by environmental health and trading standards services in local authorities. This includes port health authorities which have specificresponsibilities for import controls. In Northern Ireland, responsibility for food law enforcement lies with district councils. Feed law is enforced by DARD.

The new EU regulations covers controls at all stages of production, processing and distribution. It covers controls on feed and food produced within the EU and that exported to or imported fromoutside the bloc. Most of the provisions consolidate existing requirements so monitoring and enforcement arrangements and so should not result in food processors having to make adjustments in meetingthe requirements.

New rules on imports will require systematic checks of documentation with additional random identity and physical checks for foods and feeds of animal origin.

The frequency of physical checks should take into account the risks associated with the product, the history of compliance, controls applied by the importer and any guarantees given by thecompetent authority of the third country, the FSA stated in its advice.

New rules are being introduced for 'high risk' food and feeds of non-animal origin. This means importers will have to pre-notify the relevant authorities of the arrival of 'high risk' non-animalproducts.

In addition, they will have to present these products at specific ports that have been designated specially to deal with particular 'high risk' products.

The products themselves will be subject to an increased level of checks in much the same way as products covered by the EU's emergency safeguard measures.

The European Commission has not yet issued any proposals on designating what the high risk products would be. The FSA says it is pressing the Commission to come up with a list.

In the meantime, current safeguard measures will continue to apply and further measures may be introduced under the provisions of the EU General Food Law Regulation such that public and animal health protection will not be compromised by the delay, the regulator stated.

The issue of inspection was highlighted over the weekend in a report by BBC One television, which found there were about 700 unfilled food safety posts in the UK. The report said the shortage couldlead to further dangerous outbreaks of disease as occurred recently in South Wales.

John Tudor & Sons, which supplied schools, retirement homes and retail outlets, has been closed down since the firm's cooked meat products were linked to the infection of 161 people, many ofthem school children, with E coli 0157. The outbreak occurred throughout south Wales, most of them at 42 schools. A young boy subsequently died.

In the report local authorities admitted that food health and lack of food plant safety inspectors could lead to more contamination outbreaks such as the recent one that resulted in the death of aboy.

The country's Chartered Institute of Environmental Health has urged government action to protect the public from major illness caused by food contamination or processing practices.

An investigation into whether the firm's practices and products actually caused the outbreak is underway. However the outbreak led to public alarm about food safety at processing plants andcriticism of local food safety authorities, who are responsible for inspecting commercial premises.

The firm, based in Bridgend, South Wales, closed down voluntarily when the food poisoning outbreak occurred. Local officials later issued an emergency notice stopping the company from trading. Thecompany contested the decision and is waiting for a court decision on the matter.

Police sealed off the plant on 7 October and launched a criminal investigation into the firm's disinfection procedures and its vacuum packing process at its plant in South Wales.

Real Story contacted the environmental health departments of every local authority in the UK and more than half of them responded. Of those, nearly two-thirds said they were understaffed.

Coventry City Council said it had 11 officers to police about 3,000 food outlets. Last year, the inspectors tried to analyse random food samples in 400 premises but only managed to reach 40.

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